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A big tech company is working to free the internet from big tech companies

Cloudflare’s “gateway” system opens the door to the decentralized web
October 5, 2018
Image of connected networks of computers
Image of connected networks of computersMs. Tech

Perhaps the most grandiose proclamation made by blockchain enthusiasts is that the technology, and others like it, can form the basis for a new kind of internet, one in which control over access to websites is distributed among users instead of staying mostly in the hands of a few big corporations like Amazon and Google. The idea is that such a distributed (or “decentralized,” in blockchain parlance) web would be more resilient to denial-of-service attacks, censorship, and even natural disasters. There would be no single point of failure that could bring the system down.

Components of the decentralized web may already be emerging, but they are not ready for prime time. Cloudflare, a company that makes its money by hosting the internet’s contents on far-flung servers and uses algorithms to deliver them to users as fast as possible, wants to help change that. The first step is what the company calls a “gateway,” to which anyone can connect a website and begin serving data stored in a peer-to-peer file-sharing network called the Interplanetary File System (IPFS).

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Cloudflare aims for IPFS to become a legitimate alternative to the four-letter internet acronym that begins almost every web address: HTTP (which stands for hypertext transfer protocol). At its heart, HTTP is a set of rules for governing the way information is delivered to internet users. Unlike HTTP, in which data is identified by its location, IPFS identifies data with unique cryptographic fingerprints that can’t be faked. Instead of requesting content by referring to the IP address of the server where it is stored, IPFS users must request the content’s fingerprint.

Nick Sullivan, Cloudflare’s head of cryptography, says this approach can make the internet more trustworthy, since users don’t have to rely on third parties to deliver the actual data they requested. “If you know what you are trying to get, you can’t be tricked into downloading something else,” says Sullivan. The IPFS network is similar in function to other peer-to-peer file-sharing services, like BitTorrent. As long someone on the network is sharing a digital asset like a video file or a web page, the protocol can make it available to users who request it.

Here’s the catch (two catches, actually): it’s difficult to use, and it’s still far too slow to make sense for most users. That’s where Cloudflare thinks it can make a difference. The company already stores caches of popular pages, files, and other content in 154 data centers around the world, and uses its network to rapidly deliver those files to web users upon request. With the launch of its gateway system, Cloudflare could quickly offer data stored through IPFS at a massive scale.

Consider the case of CryptoKitties, a game that uses an Ethereum smart contract to let people breed one-of-a-kind digital cats. Each kitty’s ownership and digital “genetics” are tracked on Ethereum’s blockchain—they’re decentralized. But their images live on Amazon servers, because there hasn’t been a good option for storing them in a decentralized way, says cofounder Dieter Shirley. It would be “inconceivably expensive” to store them on a blockchain, he says, and though there are publicly available tools for using IPFS to load website images, until now they have been slow and unreliable. But the performance gain that Cloudflare’s gateway makes possible has inspired the company to seriously consider using IPFS.

Of course, the gateway is itself centralized, since it’s under the control of a single company. But Cloudflare says it has taken advantage of the way IPFS works to ensure that neither users nor site owners must trust the company to serve the correct data. Cloudflare can’t change or remove content from the IPFS network, and if it turned the gateway off, the content would still be there. So while it’s not a fully decentralized experience, it’s at least incrementally less centralized than before.

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